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In the mid-twentieth century, a new concept in sociological theory emerged.  This new perspective argued against the sociological climate of the times, which dictated that in general, individuals will do what is required of them according to their roles in society through a process of socialization.  Instead, it asserted the opposite; that the social system, rather than being the driving force, was itself the product of the decisions and actions of individuals, who would act not as they had been taught to believe they should, but in the way that would bring them the most gain.  This obvious shift in sociological theory away from the social system and back toward the individual was introduced by sociologist George C. Homans.   Over the next two decades, other such notable sociologists as Peter Blau, John Thibaut, and Harold Kelley built upon Homans’ general approach, which asserted that society overall is based on a constant series of interactions between individuals, and emphasized the process of exchange taking place in each of these interactions.  This vision of social interaction as a market modality was strongly reminiscent of the earlier “Invisible Hand” theory of economics introduced by Adam Smith in the 18th century, and ultimately became known as “exchange theory”. 


As previously stated, George Homans placed heavy emphasis on society as a constant series of interactions.  He further emphasized that these interactions each involve some exchange between the parties involved.  While the term “exchange” seems to lend itself to an economic concept more readily than a sociological concept, when one considers that “exchange involves not only extrinsic benefits but also intrinsic ones such as love and affection, companionship, counseling and advice, and feelings of appreciation” (Clarke, 1997), the concept of exchange theory seems more easily applied to the social sciences. 


Homans based his ideas primarily on the psychological and behavioral principles that he believed explained human social behavior.  The beginning of what became exchange theory lies in a principle espoused in his 1950 publication The Human Group.   This principle, which became known as Homans’ Law, stated the following:  “persons who interact with one another frequently are more like one another in their activities than they are like other persons with whom they interact less frequently” (Homans, 1950).  This similarity born of interaction can result in two manifestations:  the formation of a cohesive group, with its own standards and expectations, or the recognition of individuals as social equals.  In either case, the underlying force is a basic exchange.  The individuals involved must be providing some reward, each to the other, or there would be no motivation for any of them to remain involved.  This reward can be as simple as basic social approval, fulfilling the desire of the individual to fit into the group.  So long as each individual involved feels that he is still receiving a reward from his association with the group, the group will continue.  In short, Homans conceptualized the processes of social association “as an exchange of activity, tangible or intangible, and more or less rewarding or costly, between at least two persons” (Blau, 1964).  The principle hinges upon certain terms, the most important of which is that in order to set Homans’ Law in motion, the individuals involved must originate from the same level of esteem or authority (i.e., social equals)  – this cohesion will not form among individuals from two classes of individuals which can be clearly distinguished with regard to class, status, or authority (Homans, 1961).  If social equals can be defined as people who provide equally valuable services, who can therefore exchange on equal terms, then Homans’ Law is a clear foundation upon which exchange theory has been built (Collins, 1994).    Homans’ work illustrated clearly that people have a general tendency to determine their course of action based upon which option will bring them the maximum reward at the minimum investment.  This generalization, however, opens the door to one of the major criticisms of Homans’ theory, by illustrating its lack of explanation for the countless acts of altruistic behavior committed every day,



During the 1950s and 1960s, as Homans developed his own concept of social exchange theory, many other theorists were busily researching social interaction and developing their own ideas about Homans’ concept.  Homans stayed abreast of the work being done by his contemporaries, and several of their projects found their way into his works.  One in particular illustrated Homans’ ideas relating to the human tendency to gravitate toward social equals.  In 1950, Helen Jennings examined the relationships among 400 adolescent girls at the New York State Training School for Girls.  Jennings used J.L. Moreno’s sociometric choice model for “determining the patterns of friendship and interpersonal choice for various activities” (Thibaut and Kelly, 1967) to examine what the girls responses about each other revealed about rewards and costs in friendships.  Jennings’ overall findings were that “in brief, there is implied an altering of how the individual now sees himself, to be achieved by his associating with the chosen person because he can “gain” thereby or because the chosen person assumedly has “qualities” he would like to have, and, to some degree also, out of sheer appeal as “someone I could help” (Thibaut and Kelly, 1964).  Jennings was able to identify clearly that whether they realized it or not, the girls chose their friends based on what rewards they got out of the relationship, and what costs could be avoided by choosing that friend over another possibility.  In using this study for supporting evidence, Homans noted that not only did the girls choose each other for friends due to similarities in values and activities, but due to the fact that they could be themselves around each other.  In Homans’ view, here is an obvious reward, but an equally obvious cost.  The girls stated what each one got out of the relationship, but it was what she did not say that implied to Homans the cost incurred – the fact that the girls felt the need to state that with this girl she could be herself must mean that with others she could not, that she felt “under constraint” (Homans, 1961).  Homans labeled this “the cost of inferiority” (Homans, 1961). 


Twenty-four years after The Human Group, Homans was still developing his exchange theory.  In Elementary Forms of Social Behavior (1974), Homans set forth several propositions that provide much more specific ideas about the motivation behind every action an individual takes.  On a larger scale, however, Homans was examining more than individual behaviors, as he stated, “Remember that we are particularly concerned in this book with the process by which social behavior gives rise to relatively enduring social structures” (Homans, 1974).  The propositions themselves are not groundbreaking concepts, but merely define and clarify Homans’ belief that individuals will act rationally to pursue the greatest maximum reward and incur the least possible expenditure. 



The success proposition states: 

“For all actions taken by persons, the more often a particular action of a person is rewarded, the more likely the person is to perform that action” (Homans, 1974).


Homans is careful to point out that in this proposition, there is no attempt to explain the initial action, but rather to predict that the action is more likely to be repeated as a result of the reward received the first time, and that the probability that it will continue to be repeated will vary directly with the frequency with which it is rewarded forthwith (Homans, 1974).  To illustrate this proposition, Homans references Ferster and Skinner (1957), (Homans, 1961).  Richard Emerson provides a description of how this experiment might have been conducted in Skinnerian operant research format:  (a) a single subject, in this case a pigeon, (b) studied for an extended period of time, (c) in a bounded environment that allows sequential manipulation of stimulus conditions, in this case the skinner box.  The box contains a light(S1) and a disc that the pigeon might occasionally peck(R).  The box also has the ability to occasionally provide some stimulus(S2) .  The conditions for this experiment are set so that if (a)the light is on, and if (b)the disc is pecked five times, then S2 will occur.  If the pigeon learns that disc pecking provides the stimulus, of which the pigeon has been recently deprived, an exchange relation will form between the pigeon and its environment (Emerson, 1976).  Homans puts particular emphasis on this experiment with regard to determining the frequency with which the person performs the action, which he states depends on the pattern in which the reward comes.  Surprisingly, it appears that an individual (or a pigeon) is more likely to repeat an action frequently that has been rewarded irregularly(Homans, 1974).  Here, Homans cites as an example the widespread attraction to pastimes such as hunting or fishing, which are probably among the most unpredictable and irregularly rewarded activities, and yet still maintain a loyal following of diehard enthusiasts (Homans, 1974).  This proposition imparts some logic to the willingness to continue to put so much effort into an often-fruitless endeavor.  An important note here related to Homans’ entire rewards/costs theory is that in order to have relevant consequences, the reward (or cost) must take place within a short period of time following the action; the longer the elapsed time between the action and the reward (or cost), the less likely the individual is to make the correlation between the two, and the relevance of any predicted outcome is significantly compromised (Homans, 1974).


The stimulus proposition states:

“If in the past the occurrence of a particular stimulus, or set of stimuli has been the occasion on which a person’s action has been rewarded, then the more similar the present stimuli are to the past ones, the more likely the person is to perform the action, or some similar action, now” (Homans, 1974).


This proposition builds upon the success proposition in that it takes the basic idea of an action that previously resulted in reward being repeated, and adds the dimension of stimulus to it.  In short, if similar circumstances arise under which a previous action was rewarded, then the person is more likely to perform the same action under the current circumstances.  Homans acknowledges that this proposition is particularly susceptible to the individuality of the person experiencing it, and specifies, “the connection between the stimuli and the action is subject to both generalization and discrimination” (Homans, 1974).  Here also is Homans’ first mention of cost, rather than reward, related to the propositions, as he theorizes that a set of circumstances that recall a negative memory can cause the individual to avoid the situation, just as a set of circumstances that call to mind a reward can encourage the individual to seek out those circumstances and repeat previous actions designed to obtain similar rewards (Homans, 1974). 


The value proposition states:

“The more valuable to a person is the result of his action, the more likely he is to perform

the action” (Homans, 1974).


Again, Homans uses the success proposition as a building block, but introduces the variable of value.  This is a fairly simple application – the more valuable the reward becomes to the individual, the more likely he is to repeat the action until he achieves it (and conversely, the more unpleasant a consequence becomes, the less likely is the individual to perform the act).  It becomes less simple when Homans expands the terms reward and punishment to mean not only intrinsic reward and intrinsic punishment, but to include the avoidance of punishment and the withholding of reward, respectively (Homans, 1974).  With this adjustment, it is no longer a simple matter of committing the act in order to obtain the reward.  In order to determine the likelihood of the person committing an act repeatedly, it will be necessary to know much more about the situation.  For instance, consider an individual arrested for selling drugs.  Logically, one might assume that the individual would refrain from re-engaging in the act that resulted in his arrest; however, one would have to consider which holds the stronger appeal to that individual – the reward reaped by engaging in the same behavior (the income from selling drugs), or the avoidance of punishment (and hence reward) earned by changing the behavior and no longer selling drugs.  The question is no longer “Will the individual commit the same act to get the same reward?” but “Will the individual perform Act A to continue to get Reward A, or will the individual cease performing Act A, as Reward A is now less desirable than Reward B, which he will receive for performing Act B?”  Homans goes on to describe an even more complicated situation: using punishment not to stop a behavior, but to encourage one.  Predicting the likelihood of the individual continuing to perform the same act (of non-performance) is much more difficult when the punishment for not performing the desired action is in itself a reward, as it successfully prevents the individual from having to perform the desired task.  The value proposition is particularly interesting, due to the infinite variety of values, unique to each individual.  Homans discusses both acquired values, or those “learned by being linked with an action than it successful in obtaining a more primordial value” and generalized values, or those values which are widespread in a specific society and can serve as rewards for a wide variety of actions, for example, money and social approval (Homans, 1974). 


The deprivation-satiation proposition states:

“The more often in the recent past a person has received a particular reward, the less valuable any further unit of that reward becomes for him” (Homans, 1974).


This proposition is related to the earlier discussion regarding the success proposition, in which Homans theorized that an individual will be less likely to perform an action for which he is rewarded on a regular basis, and more likely to perform one for which he is rewarded irregularly.  The deprivation-satiation proposition is very simply named; it deals with deprivation, or an increased desire for those things of which the individual has been deprived, and with satiation, or a decreased desire or even boredom with those things of which the individual has had very often.  This assumes that the same reward subject to the value proposition could under this proposition have an entirely different value.  An individual who was very likely to perform an action followed by this reward at that time might not be so likely to do so now, if in the meantime, he has performed this action and received this reward multiple times (Homans, 1974).  This seems to illustrate the idea that there can, in fact, be too much of a good thing.  


The aggrescion-approval proposition is divided into two parts (Va and Vb). Va states:

“When a person’s action does not receive the reward he expected, or receives punishment he did not expect, he will be angry; he becomes more likely to perform aggressive behavior, and the results of such behavior become more valuable to him” (Homans, 1974).


Under this proposition, the reward obtained is the satisfaction gained from doling out aggressive behavior as a result of a frustration or disappointment.  The difference between this and the previous propositions, according to Homans, is that the first four deal with voluntary, or operant behavior (Homans, 1974).  This fifth proposition deals with emotional behavior.  With regard to these propositions, the incident of operant behavior that resulted in the first reward must have been a happenstance occurrence, whereby the individual happened to perform an act that resulted in an unexpected reward.  Only after receiving the reward is the individual in control of whether he chooses to perform the act again.  Emotional (aggressive) behavior cannot be happenstance.  There must be a stimulus, which causes an automatic and reflexive response.  If this response results in a reward, the individual now finds himself in a situation identical to the individual who performed the operant act, whereby he must decide if he will repeat the action in hopes that the same reward will be the result the second time.  The difference in the act when performed the second time is that it is now a voluntary or operative behavior, as the individual has considered the circumstances and made a decision to perform the act.


Vb of the aggrescion-approval proposition states:

“When a person’s action receives reward he expected, especially a greater reward than he expected, or does not receive punishment he expected, he will be pleased; he becomes more likely to perform approving behavior, and the results of such behavior become more valuable to him” (Homans, 1974).


This proposition is fairly self-explanatory in light of the recent discussion of the agrescion portion of the proposition.  The happiness the individual experiences when he receives a reward or avoids a punishment is an emotional behavior, much like aggressive behavior – it is an involuntary response, it just happens.  Also like the previous portion is that after processing and considering the situation, the individual can choose to repeat the reaction as a voluntary behavior, offering spontaneous pleasantries or admirations to others which could result in similar rewards.  Related to the deprivation-satiation proposition, Homans points out that like any reward, even the once-unexpected reward can become routine, thereby decreasing the individual’s desire for it, and decreasing the likelihood that he will continue to engage in the behavior necessary to continue receiving it (Homans, 1974).


Homans’ final proposition is a fitting ending point for this discussion, as it not only pulls together several of the previous propositions, but does a fairly neat job of summarizing exchange theory in general. 


The rationality proposition states:

“In choosing between alternative actions, a person will choose that one for which, as perceived by him at the time, the value, V, of the result, multiplied by the probability, p, of getting the result, is the greater” (Homans, 1974).


Homans offers several mathematical explanations for the rationality proposition, but the concept is easily understood without technicality.  This proposition alleges that, given two choices, an individual will calculate which will bring him the maximum gain, after considering not only the overall worth of each reward, but the probability of achieving the necessary action to obtain it, and choose the option having the highest possible success rate combined with the highest possible gains.


Homans has developed a fascinating concept, in that it explains behaviors in a circular pattern:  he draws on psychological behaviorism to explain the exchanges that make up social interaction on an ongoing basis, then demonstrates how these exchange process explain societal-level phenomena.  His theory addresses society at both micro and macro-level, and provided an invaluable foundation upon which to build.





Clarke, Egerton, 1997. International Journal of Comparative Sociology (Brill), Dec97, Vol. 38 Issue 3/4, p296, 9p.


Collins, Randall, 1994.  Four Sociological Traditions.  New York:  Oxford University  



Collins, Randall, 1994.  Four Sociological Traditions, Selected Readings.  New York:  

     Oxford University Press.


Emerson, Richard M., 1976.  Annual Review of Sociology, Vol. 2 Issue 1, p335, 28p.


Homans, George Caspar, 1974.  Elementary Forms of Social Behavior.  New York: 

     Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich.